Italy was the first G7 country to endorse China’s Belt and Road initiative, making it easier to access each other’s products. Meanwhile, the Italian fashion industry is working to break the stigma around Chinese designers.

When President Xi Jinping received a state welcome in Rome this year, he described Marco Polo the Venetian merchant and explorer who travelled the old Silk Road in the Middle Ages as the “first bridge” between Italy & China. But could fashion be the second?

On that same Roman trip, Italy became the first G7 country to endorse China’s Belt & Road initiative, which envisages a network of ports, railways and other infrastructure spanning 60 countries and connecting Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

China is estimated to have invested between US$1 trillion and US$8 trillion in the project. And while it has many detractors including it now seems, the Italian Prime Minister Belt & Road projects should deepen the link between the two countries.

This would allow established Italian brands to source from and market to China more easily, and Chinese fashion labels to buy material from Italy and find a home on its storied shopping streets.

Days after the Belt & Road Initiative agreement was signed, Ctrip, a Chinese travel company with a turnover of US$4.5 billion and three million registered users signed a deal with three major players in the Italian tourism board.

A total of almost two million Chinese tourists visited Italy in 2018 and this agreement should help boost that figure by 10 per cent in 2020.

Italian fashion brands should reap the rewards: the negative publicity caused by both the yellow vests in Paris and the extradition protests in Hong Kong has made Rome, Florence and Milan particularly desirable destinations for Chinese shoppers.

Data from Planet Payment backs this up, showing that over the most recent Chinese New Year period at the height of the yellow vest protest in-store sales dropped by nine per cent year-on-year in France but grew by 22 per cent in Italy.

For Italian brands attempting to appeal to Chinese customers on home soil, the 2019 Sino-Italian Fashion Summit was held in June in Hangzhou and brought together designers and managers from top Italian houses and buyers from throughout China.

Sponsored by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the China National Garment Association, the focus was on getting Italian fashion brands a bigger slice of China’s much fought over disposable income.

“Whereas in the past, Italian brands could come into China and do very well based entirely on their heritage, Chinese customers are a lot more fashion literate these days, and both newcomers and established players need to understand their market as well as they possibly can,” says Francesco Fiordelli, the official representative for the relationship between the China National Garment Association and Italy.

Following hot on its heels was the Start-It Asia initiative, which was run by the Intesa Sanpaolo group and which held two conferences this July in Hong Kong and Shenzhen to help fashion start-ups from Italy break into Asia. They will focus particularly on creating WeChat accounts and mobile payment platforms such as Alipay and WeChat Pay.

“The Intesa Sanpaolo Group has long been committed to providing support to Italian companies interested in Asia, and to strengthening relations between Italy and China,” said Guido de Vecchi, the GM of Intesa Sanpaolo.

Given Italy’s distinguished fashion history and China’s consumer spending clout, it would be easy to see the relationship between the fashion industries of these two countries as a simple exchange of goods and money. But while that dynamic does, of course, still exist, Chinese acquisition of Italian fashion is only one part of the story.

Last month, the annual menswear trade show Pitti Immagine Uomo tried to break down some of the stigmas that still exists in Europe around Chinese design by showing looks by 10 Chinese menswear designers in Florence as a part of its Guest Nation project. Sponsors included Shanghai Fashion Week and Labelhood, an important Chinese platform and retailer supporting emerging designers.

“One year ago when we began organising this, we didn’t yet know about the Belt agreement,” says Vito Plantamura, a marketing consultant who organised Guest Nation China from his home in Shanghai. “But after the agreement was put in place, things certainly became smoother, and a lot more doors were opened, particularly in terms of sponsors Alibaba (Alibaba owns the SCMP) came on board and a few other major players.”

“But while the Belt agreement has made an impact,” he continues, “for us, it’s the quality of the menswear designers coming out of China that’s the most attractive element. The talent is there, as is the production, marketing and now finished products particularly since many of them are using top-quality Italian material.

The combination of all those factors is why the international buyers in Florence showed a lot of interest for the first time.”

Further breaking down stereotypes that exist in Italy around Chinese design is the International Talent Support (ITS) a Trieste-based design competition dedicated to supporting emerging fashion talent.

This year, it gave its prestigious ITS Award to Chinese designer Daoyuan Ding, whose houndstooth patterned suits and jacquard detail coats have been heralded as a new take on formal menswear.

“In the beginning, the projects we would receive from China would either look at traditional heritage or go the opposite direction, leaving their cultural heritage aside entirely in the quest to be more Western,” says Barbara Franchin, the founder of ITS.

“But they are now giving us their own idea of how we in the West perceive Asian culture. This means they are not duplicators any more, they are creators.”

The number of Chinese applicants to ITS has increased drastically in the past five years – mostly due to an escalation in aspiring Chinese designers studying in Italian, French and British fashion colleges with access to the right contacts.

“This move to study abroad has allowed Chinese talents who I am sure were always there, they lacked the tools the possibility of fully expressing themselves,” says Franchin.
“At ITS, China has gone from being almost unknown back in 2002 to always be represented in the finals. It’s a major transformation.”

And as uncertainty over Brexit and civil unrest in France make London and Paris less attractive prospects, more Chinese students than ever are studying in Italy. Hence why over 70 per cent of foreign students at Milan’s prestigious fashion and design school, Istituto Marangoni, come from China.

The extent of their influence is shown by the fact the school now offers translation into Mandarin for its Milan-based courses and has opened outposts in Shanghai and Shenzhen.
This, in turn, has allowed Italian professors and students to garner a deeper understanding of Chinese fashion.

“Italy and China are a perfect match and that is why I believe we feel comfortable in each other’s countries,” says Plantamura.

“We have many things in common: the culture of food, of family, of ways of doing business. I feel there is a strong connection, which is possibly why many Chinese people call Italy the China of Europe. For me, an Italian living in Shanghai, I take that as a great compliment.”